Nostalgia: Plight of lodging-house keepers

The Grand Hotel  where a general meeting of Scarborough's Townsmen's Association assembled on Ocotober 26, 1915.
The Grand Hotel where a general meeting of Scarborough's Townsmen's Association assembled on Ocotober 26, 1915.

On October 26, 1915, a general meeting of Scarborough’s Townsmen’s Association assembled at the Grand Hotel. The main subject for discussion was one already much debated in the town and in all the country’s seaside resorts, particularly those along the North Sea coast. The great loss of revenue from holiday-makers and day-trippers during the past two successive summer seasons was claimed to have ruined many shopkeepers, hoteliers and lodging-house keepers whose livelihoods depended entirely on it.

Present at the meeting were some of Scarborough’s civic and business leaders, such as WS Rowntree, TA Hopper, A Tonks and John Jackson. The chair was occupied by SP Turnbull.

More than a thousand of the town’s residents had already signed a petition addressed to Queen Mary asking for a charitable donation for the borough’s neediest. Attached to the petition was a personal letter of endorsement from Lady Londesborough. However, it was clear from a reply from Buckingham Palace, dated October 22, that no grant would be forthcoming from the Queen’s own fund and that no special consideration for Scarborough could be expected. Also, a scheme for relief submitted to the Prince of Wales’ own fund had not received approval and representations from all the East-coast towns to Asquith’s Coalition government had so far achieved nothing.

In these circumstances and in the meantime, what could Scarborians do to help themselves? With winter drawing near, many lodging-house keepers, “particularly those on the North and South sea fronts”, had insufficient savings or takings to pay their rents or mortgages. Only a few landlords had “generously” reduced rents by up to 50 per cent. Complaints were made from the floor about the government’s war risk insurance scheme: the cover was inadequate; the premiums were too high; and no allowance had been made for the special dangers experienced by East-coast residents. Many members came forward with their proposals for raising money for the town’s poorest. Mr JH Turner was praised for allowing his home, “Dunollie” on Filey Road, to be used as a bombardment museum. All the entrance money collected had been given to Scarborough hospital, the British Red Cross, St John’s Ambulance and York’s county hospital.

Because they were billeted in Scarborough, it was agreed that new military volunteers should be encouraged to join the Fifth Yorkshires. Not that billeting soldiers was compensating hoteliers and boarding-house owners for their loss of civilian trade. As Cllr Tindall had learned at the Holiday Resorts Federation committee meeting in London on October 21, the War Office had no plans to billet more troops on the “proscribed” North-east coast and anyway the military preferred empty houses and barracks to private, occupied accommodation. To add insult to discrimination, the War Office, he had discovered, were now proposing to pay only 2s 3d [11p] a day, instead of 2s 6d [12p], for every second and subsequent billeted soldier. In view of the rising price of food and fuel, billeted servicemen would cost more, not less, to keep. Scarborough’s MP, Walter Rea, now a junior minster, was asked to lobby his colleagues for a flat rate of 2s 6d a day.

At the Grand Hotel meeting there was no shortage of schemes suggested for raising “relief for distressed lodging-house keepers”. The Corporation might sell bonds or run a lottery, selling tickets at five shillings each. The town’s shopkeepers could pool their surplus goods for a grand bazaar. The town’s unemployed female population might make a variety of articles for sale, ranging from jam, straw hats, shirts and stockings to Teddy bears and children’s toys which were then in short supply. It was no good directing the poorest to the Charity Organisation Society’s premises to ask for alms: Elder Street was nearly as humiliating a resort as the workhouse in Dean Road.

Given the many cries for assistance and the constant pleas of poverty, Scarborough’s final refuge for paupers should have been overcrowded beyond capacity; but in fact, as the latest quarterly report of the Scarborough Board of Guardians showed, in October 1915 the total number of inmates at Dean Road had fallen by ten since the previous quarter. Even more surprising was the drop in the number of vagrants who had received assistance there, from 663 in 1914 to 210 in the same period of 1915. It seems that though the war had grievously harmed the holiday trade and pushed up the costs of food and fuel, it had also widened employment opportunities and increased wages. In the absence of so many men, labour was scarce. On the other hand, the war had purged Scarborough of its customary plague of beggars, prostitutes and Foreshore mountebanks.

Meanwhile, the Town Hall’s officers and elected councillors were searching for more and deeper economies. Accounts of wages, terms of employment and expenses were being examined and re-examined with extraordinary diligence. Penny-pinching was the order of the time. Nobody’s job was safe. Soon councillors were falling out with each other over staff numbers employed by the borough. When Cllrs Hopwood and Moore dared to suggest that some departments such as Water had not reduced their workforce sufficiently, Alderman Ascough accused them of “Tommy Rot” and “playing to the gallery”, and Alderman Whittaker argued that there had been substantial reductions of employees and complimented officers for carrying out their duties efficiently.

When one observant councillor noticed that 19s 6d [97p] had been spent by the Streets and Sanitary department on whisky, he was told that it was given to a Corporation horse that had “caught a severe chill in the South Bay”. After Cllr Briggs had asked, “Did the whisky kill it?”, he was informed that the “remedy” had unfortunately ended the horse’s life. Presumably, at Scarborough, it was customary to medicate the Corporation’s sick animals with strong spirits!